Storytime: A Six-Hour Shift at the Beef Store in the town of X, Y County, Ontario, Canada.

October 18th, 2017

The air still smells nice in the early pre-noon as I clump up to the door. Trees, leaves, and the damp leftovers of last night’s dew still grimly clinging on.
But then I pop open the door and the red, meaty smell of animal hits me. Someone’s dropped a can on the floor and it’s popped open, spilling beef under a shelf.
Well, that’s one way to start a shift.

Hour one needs that sort of chore though. There’s not much else to it. Double-check the shelves for stock. Double-check the floor for spots you missed cleaning last night. Check signs, check your teeth, whistle if you can. I can’t.
The customers are mostly regulars. Very regulars. They’ve got stricter schedules than I do. It’s Wednesday, so that means he comes in at nine after the bell, smiling and waving. We talk a bit as I pack up his baggie of venison. He gives me a dad joke, which I appreciate.
“Hey. You know what the difference is between a hippo and a Bic?”
“Well, the hippo’s a little heavier. And the Bic’s a little lighter.”
I don’t laugh. The listener never laughs at dad jokes, you just make disgusted spitting sounds without opening your mouth. The joker laughs instead, and he does so. His hands shake like rattlesnake tails as he takes the baggie of animal from mine.
“Don’t you start,” he says to me, serious now.
“I haven’t, I won’t,” I tell him. “Too cheap. Beef costs money, you know.”
“I’m serious,” he says, and he still is. He’s smiling but he means it very much. “It’ll ruin your life.”
“I won’t,” I say again, and he smiles more and he waves and we say goodbye until Wednesday.

Hour two. Now the business picks up, past the regulars. It’s time to get in the car with a cooler and fill it up with animal in any form you can imagine. Baggies and cans fly across the counter. Especially the baggies of hamburger – it’s so fatty, it goes down easy. The men love it the most, and they’ll chug it by the case with their friends.
“What’s that flavoured crap?” one of them asks his wife in that mocking voice that’s just joking and therefore absolutely serious. She gives him and me and the world a giggle that’s grown awkward from overpractice and I sell her a bag of peppered beef jerky, a single stick of which has more protein in it than mister macho’s entire case and then some. Pemmican and jerkies, hard to imagine anything harder, but you don’t grill them so they aren’t manly even if they’ll trash you faster than you can say boo.

Hour three is when the part of the day I’ve been expecting happens and I say the magic words, which are “Mind if I see some ID?”
And I get my genie’s wish fulfilled, because it’s definitely SOME ID, it’s just not theirs. The face is broader and flatter. Probably an older sibling. They get the birthday wrong twice when I quiz them, and they don’t have any other photo cards. I write it down in my little booklet as I explain to them why this baggie of gravlax isn’t going to happen now, and I’m lucky because they’re young enough that they just get sullen instead of belligerent. Give it a year.
They slink off out the door and out of the parking lot and away down the road and I know in the next hour or so some adult is going to walk in the door and buy a couple of things. One of them will be a baggie of gravlax. They will meet my eyes with absolute sincerity and I will have no grounds whatsoever to say anything about it.

Hour four is the lull, where everyone’s probably at home, devouring their bounty. I take the time to wander back into the fridges and refill the shelves where they’ve been stripped bare. Some stuff needs this treatment hourly; others I’ve left there for months. It’s like a memory puzzle, seeing how much you can hold in your brain in one trip. Four gravlax eight pepperettes six sirloins and two tri-tips and a partridge in a pear tree. Twenty bags, two hands, I make it work. I’m very proud of that. The last time I dropped anything I was only holding two bags, don’t ask me how that works.
When I’m putting the sirloins on their shelf someone walks up behind me and bites me on the neck in a not particularly enthusiastic way. I yelp – that’s it, no scream, no roar, just a genuine ‘AH WHAT WAS THAT’ sound, pure and unpolluted. The biter shows no reaction whatsoever. Turns on her heel and walks out the door. By the time I’m thinking of descriptions and police she’s already in the parking lot (on foot, so no license plates) and all my memory has to go on is ‘has teeth.’ Helpful.

At hour five some of hour two’s customers come back in. Some of them are already wasted – god knows how, off’ve light beef, but I could smell it on their breath. Their eyes are red; their mouths stink of old muscle tissue and dried blood. Even with their lips shut the smell seeps out of their pores. I turn them down and they stare, bug-eyed. This must be some kind of mistake, they say. Some fucking lunatic has killed the clerk and taken over the counter. What in the name of every god and devil could be the reason for this unique and special calamity that now crosses my path?
“Whad’ya mean?” they interrupt me as I explain. “What? I’m fine! What?”
I double-check for myself. It’s hard to tell with all the frying in the air around here in summertime, but no. These two might be surly, loud and uncoordinated at the best of times, but right now there’s more than attitude at work here. The call remains.
I don’t learn any new swears as they head out the door. Contrary to expectation, you don’t get any better at cussing after a few beefs. It’ll speed your lip up but it slows down the brain. No creativity.

Hour six is very quiet. Very, very quiet. A few people missing that last thing they promised to get for their relatives coming over tomorrow. One or two people coming off their own shifts, somewhere else. And a panting, bleeding man in a ragged coat who trips on our rubber mat and falls flat on his face as he runs in the door.
He jumps up again. From flat, like a frog. His eyes are wide, his pupils maybe not nearly so, and I wonder what’s going on there. It’s not animal, but he’s definitely taken something that’s disagreed with him. Though not half as much as he’s disagreed with someone else; that’s a knife cut he’s clutched his palm over, on his right arm.
“Help!” he yells. Or something like that.
I pick up the phone and by the time I’m finished dialing he’s run out the door again.
At least I have a description this time. ‘Stabbed’ isn’t comprehensive, but it’s awfully distinctive.

That’s it.
I lock the door, empty the till, run the settlements, band the receipts and put them in the safe with the cash, file tomorrow’s starter money in the envelope, sweep, mop, stock, turn off the lights and turn on the security and then lock the door.
Then I make sure I locked the door.
Then I make sure that I made sure that I locked the door.

After the hours are gone I go home, I eat everything I can fit in my mouth, and I go to bed so I’ll have plenty of strength tomorrow, when I go back and do the world some more good.

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